erik lundegaard

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Tuesday October 25, 2011

Why Job Creators Is Such a Lie

Job creators.

We've been hearing that phrase a lot from the usual folks in the Republican party. They use it as a euphemism for the wealthiest people in the country, whom Republicans don't want to tax further, even though their current tax rate is half of what it was when I was growing up: 35% rather than 70%.

The right can't say “Don't tax the rich.” That won't play. So in a time of double-digit unemployment, someone dreamed up the term “Job creators.” The top 1% are wealthy, sure, but they're also the people who create jobs (Bill Gates, etc.), and taxing them at a higher level (at, say, 39%) will create such uncertainty that they won't expand their operations, and this will keep the economy from expanding as well. Taxing “job creators” is thus counterproductive to creating jobs.

It's a lie, of course.

The wealthiest people in this country (Bill Gates, etc.) are not job creators but profit creators. That's their job. If they have to add jobs in order to create profit, they'll do it. If they have to cut jobs in order to create profit, they'll do that, too. And if they can get you, their employee, to do more for less, they'll do that every day and twice on Sunday.

That's why the term “job creators” is such a lie. It ignores what a CEO does, what a corporation is. It ignores what capitalism is.

I've been feeling this all year. I've been waiting for someone in the mainstream media to say this all year. Nothing.

It's not the mainstream media, but recently, on his site, journalist Peter Lewis wrote about former Gannet CEO Craig Dubow, who resigned recently after six years at the helm. During his tenure, Gannett went from employing 52,000 to 32,000. Its stock went from $72 a share to $10 a share. Admittedly the last six years were particularly rough for newspapers, but—and here's the point—they weren't rough for Craig Dubow, whose salary was raised several million in 2010 to $7.9 million. Meanwhile, the pay of Bob Dickey, the head of Gannett’s U.S. newspapers division, was nearly doubled, from $1.9 million to $3.4 million, in 2010. This past summer he laid off 700 people. “While we have sought many ways to reduce costs,“ he told the workers, ”I regret to tell you that we will not be able to avoid layoffs.”

Job creators.

Dubow insists that his top priority as CEO was to serve the consumer: “We have always maintained an unwavering focus on the consumer,“ he wrote in his resignation letter. ”As a result, we have evolved into a digitally led media and marketing solutions company committed to delivering trusted news and information anywhere, anytime.”

Marjorie Magner, non-executive chairman of Gannett’s board of directors, echoed this thought. So did new CEO Gracia Martore.

Here's Peter Lewis:

These people are lying. The corporate goal is not to serve the consumer; it’s to maximize profits and pay packages for top executives. Can anyone argue that Gannett newspapers and journalism are better today, and that news consumers are better served?

How did Mr. Dubow and Gannett serve the consumer? They laid off journalists. They cut the pay of those who remained, while demanding that they work longer hours. They closed news bureaus. They slashed newsroom budgets. As revenue fell, and stock prices tanked, and product quality deteriorated, they rewarded themselves huge pay raises and bonuses.

Job creators.

Next time you hear someone use that term, feel free to punch them in the face.

John Boehner uses the term "job creators" to lie to the American people again.

One of the worst offenders.

Posted at 06:19 AM on Oct 25, 2011 in category Business
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Friday September 23, 2011

Why is The Seattle Times Linking to Exxon PR Blogs?

Doing some research on The Seattle Times website the other day I came across the following link (right-hand column, third down):

Link to Exxon Perspectives PR blog on Seattle Times site

I noticed the headline certainly. The NY Times reporting poorly. Didn't have their facts. According to who? Exxon Mobile Perspectives? You're effin' kidding me. Why is this even on a legitimate news website? Or is The Seattle Times no longer a legitimate news website? Or have we created a culture where legitimate news organizations are so desperate for money they'll do what they need to do to survive. Like linking to Exxon Mobile Perspectives.

I clicked through but didn't even bother to read the article by Ken Cohen, vice president of public and government affairs for Exxon Mobil Corporation. But I did see his latest post: HIGHER TAXES ON OIL COMPANIES WON'T CREATE JOBS. Really? Hard hitting.

How does that guy sleep? How do I?

Posted at 06:43 AM on Sep 23, 2011 in category Business
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Monday July 11, 2011

Location! Location! Location!: Photos from the Death of a Mall

Last week I happened to be in the Southdale Shopping Center, near Edina, Minn., in the middle of a weekday afternoon, and the place was a ghost town. Seven miles east, on the site of old Met Stadium, you have the Mall of America, which still brings in (and takes away) the crowds. The recession, and the digitalization of business and culture, hasn't helped Southdale, either. Even its movie theater was pretty empty.

Southdale Mall, Edina, Minn.

The death of Southdale Mall, Edina, Minn.

The death of Southdale Mall, Edina, Minn.

Location! Location! Location!: Photos from the death of a mall

Posted at 08:23 AM on Jul 11, 2011 in category Business
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Monday April 18, 2011

Distilling the B.S. of CEOs

I read the following three paragraphs, from the article “Distilling the Wisdom of CEOs” by Adam Bryant, in yesterday's New York Times. Three grafs was as far as I got before I began railing in frustration:

IMAGINE 100 people working at a large company. They’re all middle managers, around 35 years old. They’re all smart. All collegial. All hard-working. They all have positive attitudes. They’re all good communicators.

So what will determine who gets the next promotion, and the one after that? Which of them, when the time comes, will get that corner office?

In other words, what does it take to lead an organization — whether it’s a sports team, a nonprofit, a start-up or a multinational corporation?

The Corner Office by Adam BryantIn other words?

What is Bryant assuming here? He's assuming that the employee who demonstrates the greatest leadership skills will get promoted. He's assuming that promotions are based upon positive skills. He's assuming nothing pejorative—ruthlessness, ass-kissing, bad-mouthing competition—goes into success or promotion in a modern corporate office.

I mean, c'mon.

In distilling that CEO wisdom, Bryant comes up with the following traits that will help those 100 hard-working 35-year-olds (and presumably you and me):

  • passionate curiosity
  • battle-hardened confidence
  • team smarts
  • a simple mind-set
  • fearlessness

All positive, of course. No CEO got where they got because of anything untoward. Maybe we should add “self-promotion” to the list. “Selective memory.” “Bullshit.”

Interesting, too, how these five traits may help the CEO but not necessarily the company. Or us. You'll probably find the last four traits, for example, in every CEO that led us straight into the global financial meltdown. When it comes to investing in derivatives based upon subprime mortage loans, fearfulness has its place.

Posted at 08:05 AM on Apr 18, 2011 in category Business
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Wednesday May 05, 2010

Morons, Crooks, and the People Who Saw It Coming: Assessing Credit on the Subprime Mortgage Disaster

Here are four names to remember. There are more but these are the ones I know:

Michael Burry
Greg Lippmann
Steve Eisman
John Paulson

They're the names to trot out whenever someone—particularly a higher up at an investment bank—says, vis a vis the subprime mortgage disaster, that no one saw it coming.

No, people saw it coming. These guys saw it coming. They bet against it and made hundreds of milions. Or billions.

I certainly didn't see it coming. I'm an idiot when it comes to finance. I'm even more of an idiot when you get into esoteric matters like banks selling mortgages and bundling them into bonds, which are rated by agencies that aren't rating them properly, and some of these bonds, the worst of the bonds, are sometimes rebundled into new packages called collateralized debt obligations, or CDOs, that are also rated by agencies that aren't rating them properly, and then side-bets are placed on those... I mean, you lost me back at the pass. It's partly why I read Michael Lewis. He writes well enough that even I can fathom some of this stuff. Right now I'm reading "The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine," about the subprime mortgage disaster.

Man, is it depressing.

There was an article in The New York Times yesterday, Andew Ross Sorkin's column, about uber-investor Warren Buffett coming to the defense of Goldman Sachs. He said: "I don't have a problem with the Abacus transaction, and I think I understand it better than most." He probably does. I didn't even know it was called the Abacus transaction. All I know is that John Paulson helped put together...what? A bond? Securities? An instrument? Then he shorted that instrument, the Abacus instrument, and Goldman Sachs didn't tell the people who bet long that the instrument was put together in part by the guy who was shorting it; the guy on the other side of their bet.

Buffett says:

“I don’t care if John Paulson is shorting these bonds. I’m going to have no worries that he has superior knowledge. ... It’s our job to assess the credit.”

To which Sorkin chimes in: "The assets are the assets. The math either works or it doesn’t."

All of that makes sense. But it still sounds wrong. It's like finding out that the lineup of the baseball team I'm betting on was put together, not by the manager, whom I trust, but by the guy in the stands who's betting against my team, whom I don't. This behavior may not be illegal but it should be.

There's also the matter of being able to see the line-up. That lineup may not be online. It may not be posted in the dugout. The manager might not exchange it with the other manager's lineup before the game begins. Buffett calls it "assessing the credit," but according to Lewis, the bond market is opaque in a way that the stock market, which is more heavily regulated, is not. It's often hard to assess the credit. Was this particular instrument that John Paulson created for Goldman Sachs one of those that was hard to assess? I don't know. Does Warren Buffett, who understands these things better than most, have greater access to Wall Street firms and can thus assess the credit more easily than, say, a Michael Lewis, or you, or I? I don't know. These are merely my follow-up questions. The follow-up questions that Andrew Ross Sorkin didn't ask.

Let's pull back further. Are roles being blurred here? Why are investors on either end of a deal creating that deal? Why are investment banks placing bets on their own creations? Why is this allowed? Why is this still going on?

Back to Lewis' book. Page 158:

It was in Las Vegas [in Jan. 2007] that [Steve] Eisman and his associates' attitude toward the U.S. bond market hardened into something like its final shape. As Vinny put it, "That was the moment when we said, 'Holy shit, this isn't just credit. This is a fictitious Ponzi scheme.'" In Vegas the question lingering at the back of their minds ceased to be, Do these bond market people know something that we do not? It was replaced by, Do they deserve merely to be fired, or should they be put in jail? Are they delusional, or do they know what they're doing? Danny thought that the vast majority of the people in the industry were blinded by their interests and failed to see the risks they had created. Vinny, always darker, said, "There were morons and crooks, but the crooks were higher up."

That's Eisman and associates in Jan. 2007. They saw it coming. And Michael Burry? He saw it coming in 2003.

You should read Lewis' book. Burry is the most interesting character in it but Eisman is the big quote. I leave with him:

I think Alan Greenspan will go down as the worst chairman of the Federal Reserve in history. That he kept interest rates too low for too long is the least of it. I'm convinced that he knew what was happening in subprime, and he ignored it, because the consumer getting screwed was not his problem. I sort of feel sorry for him because he's a guy who is really smart who was basically wrong about everything.

Posted at 06:47 AM on May 05, 2010 in category Business, Books
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